For rural health departments, medical students help build contact tracing network

By Mackenzi Klemann -

KENTON — The Kenton Hardin Health Department quickly found itself overwhelmed when new coronavirus cases were first identified in Hardin County.

With a staff of seven, there weren’t enough full-time nurses at the health department to call possible contacts of those who tested positive for the virus, let alone check in with those contacts every day for 14 days. So the health department turned to a volunteer workforce of pharmacists in training, an increasingly common trend as health departments are tasked with tracking the possible spread of the coronavirus based on confirmed cases, otherwise known as contact tracing.

The tracers ask basic questions to determine where the person has been in the last two weeks to identify anyone who may have been exposed to the virus.

Direct contacts, typically family members or roommates, are asked to self-quarantine and report their symptoms to the health department for 14 days. If no symptoms develop after two weeks, they are free to go back to work and about their lives, while those who develop symptoms may be quarantined longer.

Contact tracers will identify others who might have been exposed to the coronavirus before the infected individual knew they were sick, but those contacts may be asked to monitor their symptoms and avoid leaving their homes when possible rather than impose a strict self-quarantine.

“One contact can have an unlimited number of individuals we are following,” said Cindy Keller, director of nursing and deputy health commissioner for the Kenton-Hardin Health Department.

The Ohio Department of Health is recruiting contact tracers to help health departments around the state identify people who were potentially exposed to the virus, a task that will become more difficult as Ohioans return to work and start spending more time with family and friends.

But for the Kenton Hardin Health Department, the case load is already overwhelming.

“We had nurses who were taking control of this and were just drained trying to keep up with everything,” said Eric Dierkes, 23, a sixth-year pharmacy student at Ohio Northern University who volunteered as a contact tracer in April.

Dierkes, who graduates this weekend, was joined by several ONU pharmacy students who placed calls and tracked the symptoms of anyone the health department was monitoring under quarantine.

“Sometimes people overlook who they may have seen,” said Makayla Wells, 24, another ONU pharmacy student set to graduate on Sunday. “Even if it’s — Oh, they stopped by for 15 minutes to drop off something or say a quick hello — it’s important that those people are also contacted.”

Larger health departments have not had to rely on volunteer tracers, but many are now exploring their options as they wait for more guidance from the Ohio Department of Health.

Allen County Public Health, for example, has already formed an epidemic response team to help with contact tracing within the department. And the health department has a pool of retired medical personnel who may be called on to help with the pandemic response, although Tami Gough, director of prevention and health promotion services for ACPH, said the department has not reached that stage yet.

By Mackenzi Klemann

Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.

Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.

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